Get Shorty 

Four compilations of contemporary short fiction.

Given that tapas are to the entree what the short-story collection is to the novel, the "O. Henry Prize Stories 2005" (Anchor Books Paperback, $14) makes an exquisitely varied feast. Garnered from stories previously published in American or Canadian periodicals in 2003, these 20 selections were chosen by editor Laura Furman and are O. Henry Prize Stories, sans the surprise ending. Many are of a reflective nature, focusing on a growing awareness. In "The Drowned Woman," by Frances de Pontes Peebles, we observe a child drawn to the maid who turns out to be her father's mistress. We share the wonderment of the socialite in Caitlin Macy's "Christie" as she grudgingly comes to admire her nonpedigreed college chum who surpasses her friend's social status through marriage, yet avoids snobbery and extends kindness.

As tasty as these stories are, they are enhanced by the authors' comments, plus a listing of their other stories and novels. To whet your palate further, three acclaimed jurors have explicated their favorite stories. For dessert, as it were, especially for writers, is a juicy 24-page listing of periodicals that publish short stories. Thus, for fiction gourmands, writers or lovers of a good, thought-provoking read, here is a veritable banquet. — Jennifer Yane

"Brothers and Sisters, I bid you beware," Kipling wrote, "Of giving your heart to a dog to tear." Pessimistic as it sounds, he had a point. Just ask a beagle owner while she's stapling missing notices to a lamppost: She'll tell you. But if you think dogs tempt the worst kind of heartbreak, then you obviously haven't been married yet — at least in the way Amy Hempel's soulfully damaged cast are (or have been) in "The Dog of Marriage" (Scribner, $23). From the woman who watches her neighbor betray his wife in "Beach Town" to the narrator of "Jesus Is Waiting," a story about the palliative of motion, Hempel's characters have been jilted and hung out to dry. Not just by their husbands, but by their own hearts as well. Rather than stay home and listen to "I'll Be Your Mirror" on repeat, though, Hempel's characters do things.

The narrator of the elegant title piece adopts a stray dog. In "The Afterlife," a woman referees her father's courting process, sensing he will find it impossible to replace his late wife. This engagement through watching over people and pets runs throughout "The Dog of Marriage." Hempel's characters want to be known but admit that's impossible. "The way people flatter you by wanting to know every last thing about you," says one woman bitterly, "it isn't a compliment, it is just efficient, a person getting more quickly to the end of you."

Perhaps, in the end, a dog isn't such a bad thing after all. — John Freeman

It is difficult to find level ground within the stories of "Nice Big American Baby"M (Knopf, $23), by Judy Budnitz. With stories that delve into realms that grow increasingly strange and unpredictable, Budnitz creates an unsteady and ever-shifting landscape inhabited by misfits and human exaggerations. As Budnitz refuses to shy away from political, social or racial commentary, she delves into the darkest emotions of the feminine psyche. With a magnifying glass held at close range to various facets of decadence, commercialism and bigotry within American society, the reader is led through a maze that yo-yos from the strange to the grotesque.

In the opening story, "Where We Come From," a woman desperate to become an American citizen remains pregnant for four years before being forced to give her freakish and troubled child up for adoption. Only in this way can the foreigner become a skewed version of the much-longed-for "nice, big, American baby." With stories that jump from the political satire of a wicked dominatrix prime minister, to a girl swimmer with webbed feet who is forced into an arranged marriage, to an elderly woman's warped relationship with an elephant boy, "Nice Big American Baby" culminates in "Motherland" on an island run by angry mothers. While at times disturbing, each of these 12 stories will force the reader to think, long after the page has turned. — Valley Haggard

"Fascination" (Knopf, $24), William Boyd's third collection of short fiction, consists of 14 playfully constructed stories whose plots often hinge upon the misguided behavior of lovelorn and despairingly self-absorbed characters. Taken individually, a majority of the pieces are genuinely rewarding, but as a collection, their common themes, as well as the angle from which Boyd tends to view these themes, quickly become tiresome. Too many of Boyd's principal characters are writers or artists (hence the self-absorption) whose ego-dominated lives are consistently placed against a backdrop of lust, jealousy and infidelity.

To his credit, however, Boyd's writing is profoundly unsentimental when dealing with these subjects, and with few exceptions he keeps a noticeable distance from his characters, wisely preferring to monitor their actions without picking apart their psyches or attempting to explain their curious and oftentimes bewildering choices. Boyd, an internationally acclaimed author who makes his home in England and France, is at his best in "The Ghost of a Bird," a brilliant depiction of a brain-damaged pilot who touchingly spends the last weeks of his life in love with a fictional character he had once written about in a story. But elsewhere Boyd puts his shortcomings on display. With the petty gimmickry that frames such stories as "Beulah Berlin: an A-Z," or his unforgivable aping of Chekhov in "The Woman on the Beach with a Dog," Boyd's fascination is too inconsistent to deserve more than lukewarm praise. — Hutch Hill

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